Photos from Frank Gossner
Interview by Yashas Mitta
Title designed by Kunel Gaur
It all sounded like a very bad version of Led Zepplin.
Frank Gossner is a German DJ and a Vinyl Archaeologist. Frank has spent years digging, collecting and reissuing some of the most amazing Afrobeat, Funk and Disco records from the western African region. Now based in Costa Rica, he has played at some of the most amazing venues around the globe bringing his collection to people in countries who’ve never heard such music before. By licensing directly from the original African artists, he has re-issued many of the albums he found on record labels in Brooklyn, Paris and London.
We had a great conversation with him over Skype and dug out some of his amazing experiences from his times organising Vampyros Lesbos parties in NYC to his shift to African Funk & Soul.
You can follow Voodoo Funk on SoundCloud and his blog. We highly recommend you hit play on Frank’s playlist on the right before you continue to read this interview.
Tell us a bit about yourself.
I am originally from a tiny village in the Black Forest from the South of Germany and my father had a small factory at the time for plastic injection molding of small precision parts and I was more or less destined to take over the family business at some point. So I enrolled in a regular training programme to do that but I really hated it.
Fortunately, my parents got divorced and the company went bankrupt. At the time it wasn’t all that funny but in retrospect this was the best thing that could have happened to me. Otherwise my life would have been running a factory in the province of Germany. What a nightmare. I ended up moving away and doing lots of odd jobs, I was working on construction sites, bartending, I was never in one job for more than six months. Nothing I was doing was really a career option. It was just physical labour and I would move to another job right away if it would only pay 50 cents more. I was living in a very small apartment and spending very little money and all the extra money I could spare, I ended up spending it on records.
A promotional flyer of Frank's Vampyros Lesbos party when he lived in NYC around 1998.
What has been your journey to the kind of music you are known for today?
As a teenager up into my early twenties I was mostly interested in bands like X, Black Flag, Minutemen, Meat Puppets and a lot of the stuff that was called post punk at the time like the Cramps, the Gun Club, Tex & the Horseheads and the Laughing Hyenas. I also was a big fan of Australian stuff like the Scientists, Beasts Of Bourbon or Lubricated Goat. Then in the early 90s when I was in my mid 20s this music lost its appeal to me since most of the bands I liked changed their music or split up. There were new bands in what they called ‘alternative music’ genre and also grunge which I really hated. I felt it was classic rock music by people who can’t really play. It all sounded like a very bad version of Led Zeppelin. I have Nothing against Led Zeppelin and nothing against musicians who can’t play, you get plenty of that in punk, but if I want to hear classic stoner rock I rather go for the original stuff… so you could say that grunge ruined rock music for me and I moved onto other musical directions.
This was also a time when it became almost impossible to find new music on vinyl and I felt like an idiot spending money on CDs because they looked like shit. I have to work for more than two hours to buy one CD and it didn’t seem like a good deal. That was when I stopped going to record stores and started going to flea markets to buy old records. It became an adventure as I started collecting music from the time when I was born ( in my case the late 60s). The flea markets I used to go to were very close to France so I used to find a lot of French 60s go-go pop, stuff like Jaques Dutronc, Nino Ferrer and of course Serge Gainsbourg. I also got in to what was called ‘library music.’ This describes the (sometimes) funky music for TV commercials that was never meant to be in stores and would only end up in flea markets when those production companies went bankrupt and their record libraries were sold off.
I had a big passion for sexy 70s movies. What you call sexploitation, not porn by any means, soft stuff where you would have nightclub scenes with girls in go-go cages and funky music playing. Then I had a strange idea of making a party concept out of it. So I edited together some VHS tape compilations of the sexiest scenes from all those weird movies and Spanish director Jess Franco was my favorite. Franco’s movies often had some amazing music, he was a jazz player, and there was a series of movies with this Portuguese actress Soledad Miranda, the first of which was called ‘Vampyros Lesbos’ and then came the ‘Devil came from Akasava’ and then ‘She Killed In Ecstasy.’ It’s not really a series but they all had the same lead actress and all had some of the same background music by two German guys, Manfred Hübler & Sigfried Schwab. Through my connections to the movie scene I found out who owned the rights for this music.
I connected them with a friend of mine who ran a record label and that was the first real re-issue I ever worked on but I was stupid enough to not even ask to be credited so my name is not even on this record. That record went on to be hugely successful, it sold a ton and one of the tracks even appeared on Tarantino’s Jackie Brown ("The Lions and the Cucumber" by The Vampires' Sound Incorporation).
I ended up moving to Berlin and my daytime job was printing T-shirts. I had moved in with my girlfriend at the time who was living in a commune with two of her best girlfriends. The four of us got along great and when I started dj-ing I immediately recruited all three of them as gogo girls for my parties!
A photo with Frank and his go-go girls. NYC, 1998
I even took it so far, I went to an iron worker, and had him build a collapsible chrome plated steel go-go cage. So when I had a DJ gig someplace I would set up the go-go cage and the girls would come and sometimes if there was no dressing room we would set up one of those small foldable dressing rooms like they have in cheap boutiques so that they could change into new costumes. It was a lot of fun! I took the whole show on the road and we toured Germany and Europe in a van together.
After a couple of years I had saved up some money and in 1996 I decided to move to New York and try my luck there. I even took my go-go cage with me which caused big problems with customs!
They held it at customs at JFK airport -- “What are you saying? It’s a cage?” they said “You need to clarify what kind of animals are you going to put in there because we have regulations for this”. I said “No No ...no animals, what are you thinking? It’s going to be for girls!” Hahaha! Of course that didn’t make things much better. So I had to actually send pictures of girls dancing in the cage because they had suspicions I was involved in a sex slavery ring or something.
The clubs in NYC had to hang a sign next to the dance floor that said 'dancing prohibited.
That is unbelievable! What year was this?
This was 1996 and I started doing the Vampyros Lesbos parties in New York--they were surprisingly successful. I was doing that for four years without missing a single week non stop from 1996 to 2000. But then it just became too difficult because the mayor at the time, Giuliani, who was a former cop was extremely tough on nightclubs especially smaller venues in residential areas and he sent cops and fire departments after them and the owners got fined heavily. He brought out this old law that was from the 1920 during the prohibition era and overnight, all the clubs in New York realized that they can’t have their customers dance without breaking the law. The clubs had to put signs next to the dance floor that said ‘dancing prohibited.’ In fact they actually had bouncers walk up as soon you started to shake a leg and say “No, No, No!”
I was an illegal immigrant at the time and I had naked girls dancing in a cage which was probably the worst example of breaking the Cabaret law so in the summer of 2000 I packed up and moved back to Berlin.
Frank in Freetown in Sierre Leone playing records with the locals.
How did you go from all that to West African music?
You know when what you do for a living is playing records you kind of get tired of one style after a bunch of years. After doing those European soft porn soundtrack and French 60s pop parties for 2 years in Germany and 4 years in New York I was tired of this type of sound and wanted to do something new. In New York I had at least 2 gigs every week and made some good money so while I was still there I started buying a lot of American funk and soul 45s and when I moved back to Berlin I started a new party series called Soul Explosion where I was playing old funk and soul records and had a great run with this for the next 5 years of my life.
During all those years I continued to go back to the US to find new records and on one of those trips I went to this record store in Philadelphia and for some reason the owner had a huge stack of untouched African records in his back office. All from the label ‘Tabansi’ out of Lagos, Nigeria. I just grabbed those that I thought looked most interesting and promising. Amongst the records that I took was ‘Pax Nicholas’ and ‘The Nettey family’ which is an amazing album that I eventually re-issued years later. These were my first African records and I really was hooked.
It was then that I realised that there had to be a whole lot of music to be found in West Africa so I decided to just go there. To get into a really specific local style of music you just have to be there. Not only to get the really rare records that don’t make it to eBay but also to absorb the feel and soul of the music.
I subleased the Soul Exlosion party to a friend of mine and he sent me half of the proceeds to West Africa. That’s how I funded myself and my digging activities for the next three years. The Soul Explosion continued on in Berlin with great success and my friend is still running it today.
What does Voodoo Funk mean?
Well the Voodoo I'm talking about has nothing to do with the Voodoo we know from Hollywood movies which is very, very vaguely oriented on very few and very distorted elements of Haitian Voodoo which of course originates from Africa but it’s a very different thing. Voodoo in Haiti has a Christian influence while West African Vodun (this is the French spelling) is a pure animist religion that predates Christianity by thousands of years. In fact, it is one of the oldest religions on the planet and a lot of people think that the saints in the Catholic religion are just different versions of these voodoo deities.
The word Vodun or Voodoo comes from the language of the Fon people in coastal Benin which has no written form so here is no "original" spelling of it. It’s a religion that has very much to do with nature and music. Every one of the deities has their own specific rhythm, often played on unique instruments that are only being used for specific rituals. A lot of the traditional rhythms of Vodun are syncopated and represent structures later to be found in blues, soul, funk or salsa. Salsa originates from Vodun music. Basically all Afro-Latin music originates from this culture: not much "Latin" about it, it's all African!
Frank at a private home in Porto Novo, Benin digging through a record collection.
I believe that a record should be listened to the way it was meant to sound
You have been called a vinyl archaeologist. So what are the essential tools one needs and what do you need to know if you were going to go find these old records?
It needs a lot of dedication and perseverance because without the right mindset this work can quickly become very frustrating. Especially today where it has become very difficult to discover good new records. The amount of new records I get is a small percentage of what it used to be even from five years ago.
First of all you need a portable record player for obvious reasons. Then I always carry a dust mask when I am digging in Africa, because with the climatic conditions there change between extreme humidity during rainy season and hot, dry and dusty air during dry season. With the extreme heat and humidity you have a lot of mould growth. And when it’s dry, the deteriorating cardboard covers become very brittle. So when you are flipping through a stack of records that have been under those conditions for more than 30 years you are basically fanning three decades worth of dust, mould and insect feces into your face and inhale this nasty and hazardous mix while you are digging around.
Do you only record vinyl classics or do you play newer music from the region like Hiplife or Azonto? Also do you remix your music?
No, not at all, I’m strictly dedicated to the late 1960s to mid 80s and I am not a DJ who remixes or scratches. When I play a gig, I put on the original records and I just press the start button. I don’t even use the pitch button to beatmatch. I believe that a record should be listened to the way it was meant to sound.
In Africa, so many unexpected things happen even when you're not looking for vinyls.
What is the most unexpected experience you have had during your hunt for these amazing Vinyls?
In Africa there are so many unexpected things that happen to you every single day, even if you are not looking for records!
One of the craziest situations was relatively early when I was living in Conakry, the capital city of Guinea, and from there I started venturing into Sierra Leone. Freetown was also a good place for records because it was a really prosperous place in the 70s and they had a lot of records from Ghana and Nigeria as well as some really good local music. But this trip was relatively soon after the civil war which ended in 2000 and I started going there by 2005 and it felt really eery to see all the damaged houses, the light poles and traffic signs riddled by bullet holes. You would walk in to houses and you could still see traces of house to house combat. It still felt like being in a war zone even though it was perfectly peaceful at the time.
I went there with a friend from Guinea who had fled from Sierra Leone during of the civil war. We had local guys show us some places and were led to a 6 storey house and the bottom three floors were totally bombed out. Most walls were missing, the stairways were almost completely gone and we had to climb up ladders and cinder blocks. It was pretty crazy and I was like “Wow what’s gonna happen...doesn’t look like somebody lives in this house.” We had these two young kids who led us there and I wasn’t sure if it was a good idea to enter the building. But I have a very good sense when it comes to people and they seemed alright to me and we got to the 5th floor with a door in the ceiling and one of the guys took a stick and knocked and there was a voice and they started speaking creole so I didn’t understand much.
Somebody upstairs opened the trap door and let down a ladder… we got up and I realized with amazement that this guy had a total bachelor pad of a place! Brightly painted walls and shag carpet on the floor! This was insane I mean the whole building looked like it could collapse any minute and he was living in the top floor in a place that looked like out of a British 60s movie.
And he said “I can’t believe you are coming to look for records today.” He had sent of somebody just a week before to burn ALL of his records. His apartment was so small and he felt like he needed the space so he actually paid a kid from the neighbourhood to take all of the records to an empty lot and set them ablaze! It was terrible! He called the the kid to check and the kid came back with a handful of molten records and I could tell by the titles that it was great collection gone to waste.
It is an incredible feeling to bring music from one continent to another.
What is the best memory you have of a gig?
In recent times the best gig was in Saigon. It was in a colonial style building in the old part of the city--the architecture was really nice and I was incredibly surprised to see that the energy was phenomenal. It was an incredible feeling to bring the music of one continent to another, from Africa to South East Asia, and you have people who have never heard it before really enjoy it and dance to it.
How do people connect to your music?
West African dance music is so infectious, you can’t stand still, you have to connect, whether you want to or not. That’s not much of a choice. If you play it loud enough people will start to dance, it’s the only option they have other than to run away! It’s very easy as a DJ in that sense. The more difficult work is finding great records.
I am not at all considering myself as an artist. I am a DJ in that sense before hip hop. I have nothing against hip hop, don’t get me wrong, but this is how I understand myself as a DJ. I just play records, I just make a selection and I play it. I am not beat matching, I am not scratching, I am not really doing anything, I just put it on the turntable and press start.
Out of the all the places you have travelled in West Africa which one is your favourite?
Benin is my favourite country in West Africa because it is much more original and preserved in its local traditions and cultures than other places. The majority of people are still following the animalist traditional religions, for instance Voodoo is the official state religion and even those who consider themselves to be Christians or Muslims still go the Voodoo ceremonies and believe they are more important.
Frank at a secret digging location in Southeast Nigeria.
What has this journey taught you?
I have never asked myself this question actually. You always have the need to learn something but I never really felt that there is a big mystery in the universe that I have to unravel. I am a very simple person.
I think if there is anything that I have learnt it is that the most important thing is to keep an open mind. Never think you know a place or certain kind of music because you heard about it online. That was one of the worst things that came about with the internet. That everybody thinks that they are a specialist in everything even though they had never heard it before. They read just one article and they think “Oh, now I know this too!”
Why did you decide to make the move to Costa Rica?
I was tired of the nightlife. I am getting old now, I am 46 years old, so I just thought I should take a little bit of a break and enjoy the sun and the surf.
If you had to give one advice to your 25 year old self, what would it be?
I think I have always done the things my way and in retrospect I am happy I did them because just by ignoring the advice other people giving me. My advice is don’t follow anybody’s advice then you end up going to places where you didn’t expect to go. Often times you find opportunity where you least expect it.
What does success mean to you?
Success to me means just being able to maintain with what you really enjoy doing. I can’t give you much insight on how I finance myself. A lot of people probably wonder how this all works out. I mean, I’m a middle aged man who goes to Costa Rica to surf but I can’t really reveal how I do it, because well... some of the keys are that I haven’t had a bank account in 15 years and live a life that's off the grid and that doesn't leave a paper trail...
My father for example, he died of cancer two years ago, and this was just before he was planning to retire. He had all these plans of how he was going to work till he was in his 60s and then move to the South of France. But he had to postpone this time and time again. Once he said he’ll do it at 70 but then he died at 72 before he could do the one thing he always really wanted to. If I’d want to move to the South of France I’d buy a ticket tomorrow. For me my goal is to live in the moment and do whatever you can do with what you have.
Success is to be able to maintain what you really enjoy doing. My goal is to live in the moment and do whatever I can do with what I have.